SRU’s colors fly high during Army combat mission
U.S. Army Captain Clayton Austin, a 2011 SRU criminal justice graduate from Natrona Heights, flew a Slippery Rock University flag on a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter, like the one pictured here, that he piloted during a recent combat mission in Kabul, Afghanistan.
July 21, 2016
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa - Slippery Rock University may only occupy 660 acres in western Pennsylvania, but its reach transcends far beyond its beautiful and tranquil campus. In fact, SRU logoed merchandise - shirts, hats, flags - have been spotted around the globe.
One such sighting has a special story. May 3, 2016, the school's colors flew atop a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter during a U.S. combat mission over Kabul, Afghanistan, making an appearance before dignitaries including Secretaries of State, NATO generals and senior military and governmental leadership.
Captain Clayton Austin, a 2011 SRU criminal justice graduate from Natrona Heights, mounted the flag earlier that morning as a reminder of the home he had left behind for God and Country.
"I thought that it would be something to show both the people involved in the mission and future military members what people from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania are capable of. It was my gateway to being an inspiration to the future generations," said Austin, a former member of the SRU Reserve Officers' Training Corps.
The flag was initially part of a care package initiative facilitated by the Military Support Group on campus, a fledgling organization officially recognized by the Slippery Rock Student Government Association during the 2015 spring semester.
Under the leadership of Captain Joseph Barrow, associate professor of military science and staff member of the ROTC cadre, the Military Support group began pursuing the idea of assembling care packages that would be offered to SRU alumni currently in uniform overseas. The students coordinated fundraisers and solicited donations from local vendors to fill the boxes.
"While we packed socks, soaps and snacks, we mainly tried to add a taste of home to those serving across the globe," said Sierra Ginther, a sophomore from Weedville. "We collected SRU pens, decals and bracelets, and we accepted gifts from businesses local to Slippery Rock like Bob's Subs and North Country Brewing."
Ginther, a marketing major and the current president of the Military Support Group, along with her fellow members were in the process of assembling the care packages when an extraordinary request arrived in March from one of the future recipients.
Austin, having received an email from the SRU Alumni Office regarding the care package initiative, petitioned for one of the boxes to be sent to him in Afghanistan -with just one item inside.
"I didn't really need anything," said Austin, "but I thought it would be cool to have a Slippery Rock flag to hang on my base's dining facility. There were all kinds of other schools represented in there, so it seemed only appropriate that Slippery Rock was too."
After it’s combat flight, the SRU flag joined the flags of other
soldier’s alma maters in the dining hall.
Touched by Austin's pride in his alma mater, Ginther and Barrow rallied the team and secured, not one, but two SRU flags. These were folded carefully into a package and shipped directly to Austin, who hung one, as promised, in the banquet hall and attached the second to the Blackjack helicopter.
After the flag flew its May mission, Austin re-folded it and returned it to SRU along with a certificate of appreciation to the ROTC and Military Support team. The groups re-welcomed the colors June 24 and plan to devote a special spot in the ROTC Regimental Room to display it. Barrow and Ginther intend to conduct an unveiling sometime in the fall, a milestone for the newborn Military Support group.
"We are beside ourselves with excitement," said Ginther. "To think that this little club started at the beginning of the year and has come so far since then is incredible."
"This is such a personal victory for me."
For Ginther, the flag's return represents so much more than a mere academic advancement. It speaks of the sacrifice that she too has given for the love of her nation and the very reason why her involvement in military support began in the first place.
Her older brother is currently an active duty airman stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
"It really hit home with me since my brother left," said Ginther. "This experience has driven me to do more and more for our military. So when my roommate told me about the Military Support Group starting on campus last year, I immediately asked, 'How do I get in on this?'"
After attending her first general meeting, Ginther volunteered to fill the empty position of Treasurer, putting her marketing and math skills to patriotic use. Her passion and initiative later vaulted her to the presidency when Kara Werkmeister, a student affairs in higher education graduate student and a founder of the Military Support group, stepped down from leadership.
In her new role, Ginther plans to continue sending care packages to soldiers and active military members overseas. She sees the Kabul flag as just a beginning of her tenure of creating that relationship at SRU.
"I think all of this symbolizes that Slippery Rock isn't just Slippery Rock," said Ginther. "If you come here, you carry that with you for the rest of your life. It's an experience and a home that is taken to Afghanistan or Japan and all around the globe."
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